A group of Hunter College students are bringing little-seen artworks, and new research, to the public.
“Boundless Reality: Traveler Artists’ Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection,” a selection of more than 150 works, was curated by Harper Montgomery and her graduate students at Hunter College. The exhibition runs through January 23 at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Gallery at Hunter College on 68th Street and Lexington Avenue, and at the Americas Society Art Gallery a block away on Park Avenue. All pieces in the exhibition are from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, one of the world’s most extensive holdings of Latin American art, Montgomery said. The exhibition marks the first public showing of many of the works.
“Most of them haven’t really been studied before so not only are they being shown for the first time but it’s the first time there’s an academic interest in these works,” said Anna Ficek, a master’s candidate at Hunter College and one of the student curators. “I think that it’s a very fertile field for further study.”
As part of an ongoing partnership between Hunter College and the Cisneros collection, which provides students access to the private collection for research and coursework, master’s candidates in Montgomery’s fall 2014 seminar on 19th-century Latin American landscapes completed in-depth research on specific works, worked on the exhibition across its two venues and wrote catalogue entries for the accompanying publication, which appear alongside essays by premier scholars in the field, including the book’s editor, Katherine Manthorne.
“It’s extremely compelling to do writing that the public will read, to think about your research and writing not just as a paper you will hand in at the end of the semester,” said Montgomery, the Cisneros assistant professor of modern and contemporary Latin American art at Hunter College.
Montgomery also noted that, while many of the works are on view to the public for the first time, the show is itself unprecedented because it’s the first exhibition of traveler artist’s paintings of Latin America in the United States.
The curatorial work becomes part of the students’ professional portfolios, said Jennifer Raab, president of Hunter College, an asset for those entering the job market.
“They researched the objects from perspectives that had never been taken before,” said Raab. “Their research was groundbreaking, was new, and it was exactly what you ask your faculty to do, and in this case that was our students. To approach art and science from a new perspective and come to new conclusions.”
Pulling from the collection’s holdings of work by traveler artists, the exhibition focuses mostly on pieces from the mid-19th century, after the independence of Latin American territories eased access for travelers to the region. The presentation of mostly landscape paintings at the Hunter gallery, such as Franz Post’s cloudy “View of Frederica City in Paraiba” from 1638, one of the earliest works in the show, examines the “conventions of landscape” and the European influences on the works, like adding details to create depth of field, said Ficek.
Also on view in the small gallery is American painter Frederic Edwin Church’s “Cotopaxi” from 1853, a work from the same journey through Ecuador that resulted in the artist’s famed “The Heart of the Andes,” Ficek explained, which is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Expedition is the focus at the Americas Society less than a block away, including an extensive showing of the work of artist Auguste Morisot from his expedition with French explorer Jean Chaffanjon. The travelers followed the Orinoco River, said Silvia Benedetti, one of Montgomery’s students who acted as a curatorial assistant for the exhibition. Morisot’s many monotypes, watercolors and graphite sketches of the local flora and fauna, people and surroundings he encountered along the river are central at the venue. This portion of the exhibit also includes early photographs.
As part of their coursework, students in Montgomery’s seminar wrote exhibition proposals and presented their ideas to the galleries at Hunter and the Americas Society, and to the Cisneros collection, a process that started about a year ago.
“That was the first step to organize the exhibition,” she said.
Design studio Project Projects designed the two-venue show and similar elements pop up at both galleries. Walls of pale pink and deep green are found at both locations, as well as wooden display cases for illustrated books and the small objects from Morisot’s travels.
Through the classroom curatorial process students helped determine which pieces would appear in the show and how they’d be presented, a process that, paired with a semester’s worth of research on the objects and their contexts, yielded a lot of discussion about what to include, Montgomery said. About half the traveler artist works in the Cisneros collection appear in the show, narrowed down in part by the students in Montgomery’s seminar.
Students were also involved in developing related programming, including landscape tours of Central Park and an upcoming talk with Argentine artist Eduardo Navarro, a guest artist with the college’s visiting artists and critics program, another aspect of the partnership.
“I think conventional wisdom is nothing by committee is done well, it’s better to have a single voice,” Montgomery said. “I would definitely argue that this exhibition proves that theory wrong.”